China has had an eventful 2020. It stoked the world’s ire with its initial cover-up of the coronavirus. It reneged on its promise to grant Hong Kong autonomy. It aggressively combated any international inquiry into its detention of more than a million Uighurs in reeducation camps. Economic espionage, intellectual property theft, and territorial claims in the South China Sea have tanked U.S.-China relations.
Yet the only international conflict involving China that has caused the loss of life this year occurred in the remote, snow-capped Himalayas between China and longtime “frenemy” India. On the ridges of Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh, 14,000 feet above sea level, Indian and Chinese soldiers fought hand-to-hand and with archaic weapons: Indian soldiers said the Chinese used boulders, rocks wrapped in barbed wire, and wooden logs covered with nails. Many soldiers died after being pushed off ledges and falling into the Galwan River in subzero temperatures.
The June 15 clash—which remained gunless because of a 1996 agreement—left 20 Indian soldiers dead and at least 76 injured. China did not announce its casualties, but Indian sources estimate about 40 were seriously injured or killed. It came a month after China began enforcing its claim to disputed land and claiming as its own the Galwan Valley, which had previously been acknowledged as Indian territory.
Conflict between the two countries could have worldwide implications. China and India are the world’s two most populous countries, the second- and fifth-largest economies, and two nuclear powers that share a more than 2,100-mile-long border. The border clash, the deadliest in 45 years, sparked a fierce backlash in India against its neighbor, leading the government to deny contracts to Chinese companies and ban Chinese apps. Talks between the two countries have resolved little, and the conflict opens the door to India’s greater cooperation with the United States and the formation of a larger anti-China alliance.
“I would say that the Chinese have lost the trust of 1.3 billion Indians in one go,” said Nitin Gokhale, founder of India’s Strategic News Global. “India now realizes its largest challenge is not Pakistan, but China.”
After the skirmish, Indians took to the streets, stomping on pictures of Chinese President Xi Jinping, burning Chinese flags, and smashing Chinese-made televisions.
“India wants peace,” Indian President Narendra Modi said in a televised address June 17. “But if provoked, India is capable of giving a befitting reply.”
INDEPENDENT INDIA and the People’s Republic of China formed only two years apart and fought a war over disputed borders in 1962. Today there are 23 disputed and sensitive areas along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto boundary.
British negotiator Henry McMahon proposed the border between Tibet and the northeast region of India—known as the McMahon Line—at the 1914 Simla Convention. Tibet and Britain agreed to the border, but China’s government didn’t. The border became an increasingly contentious issue after the People’s Republic of China occupied Tibet in 1950, ridding the two countries of a de facto buffer. China’s territorial claims also expanded in the west as it built a road connecting Tibet and its Xinjiang province through the disputed area of Aksai Chin by Ladakh in Kashmir.
Although India was one of the first non-communist countries to recognize the People’s Republic of China, relations soured as China blamed India for supporting the violent 1959 Tibetan uprising and allowing the Dalai Lama and Tibetans to escape to the Indian city of Dharamshala. China began constructing roads and infrastructure to transport troops to the border, while India initiated the Forward Policy in 1960, setting up outposts along the border. On Oct. 20, 1962, as the United States was caught up with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Chinese began artillery barrages along the McMahon Line along the disputed area of Arunachal Pradesh in the east as well as in the west by Aksai Chin.
Chinese troops easily overtook small Indian outposts lacking supplies and ammunition. The rocky roads up to the border and India’s poor infrastructure in the region meant supply lines were dangerous and soldiers poorly equipped. In contrast, the well-prepared People’s Liberation Army easily pushed south into Indian-administered territory, leading then–Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to call on U.S. and Russian aid.
Before aid arrived, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai told the Indian ambassador that the Chinese had agreed to a ceasefire and would withdraw all its troops to 12 miles north of the LAC. The war was over. China had not captured any new land, and none of the territory disputes were resolved.
Bertil Lintner, author of China’s India War, noted that at the time China wanted to dethrone India as the leader of newly independent Asian and African nations, and the 1962 Sino-Indian war had attained its goal. China succeeded in becoming the new leader of the Third World. India’s defeat humiliated Nehru, feeling tricked by the Chinese friendship, and he died two years later.
The war was not fought over “control of some remote mountaintops in the Himalayas,” Lintner wrote in his book. Rather, it was a “clash of civilizations” between a growing democracy that had taken on the British system of governance and an authoritarian system that had little regard for international law.